Sink or Swim

 “What is the difference between a psychotic or LSD experience and a yogic, or a mystical?  The plunges are all into the same deep inward sea; of that there can be no doubt.  The symbolic figures encountered are in many instances identical…But there is an important difference. The difference –to put it sharply – is equivalent simply to that between a diver who can swim and one who cannot.  The mystic, endowed with native talents for this sort of thing and following, stage by stage, the instruction of a master, enters the waters and finds he can swim; whereas the schizophrenic, unprepared, unguided, and ungifted, has fallen or has intentionally plunged, and is drowning.” – Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By

“There is no such thing as pure experience, raw and undigested.  It is always mixed up with layers of interpretation.  The alleged immediate datum is psychologically mediated.” – Sarvapelli Radakrishnan, Religious Experience and its Affirmations

Navigating the Dark Night of the Soul

My most recent meditation teacher emphasized the light side of spiritual development, referring to the work we did in class as “play.” I appreciate her perspective; if you are currently enthralled with the blissful aspects of meditation and spiritual development, by all means enjoy them!  After all, if the Path were fraught with danger at every turn what is the incentive to pursue it?  However, there is a balance to all things, and spiritual development is by no means exempt.  Powerful forces of both creation and destruction play a vital role in the universe.  When we begin connecting more deeply to our subconscious, our higher self, and the world around us, we find ourselves face-to-face with both of these influences.

Unfortunately, the field of spiritual development lacks much open-minded, scientific study and when the student encounters destructive influences, she must often navigate treacherous and murky waters alone.  For Ron Lafferty, a devout Mormon, a dogmatic belief that God was communicating directly to him ended in the brutal murder of his sister-in-law and niece[1].  The dark rivers of the self, once undammed, can flood, seep, and splatter across all aspects of our lives.  As another example, a Central American church which practiced ecstatic communion with the divine claimed to be possessed by the Holy Spirit.  Joyous celebrations initiated with innocent bliss grew more and more uninhibited.  When an ecclesiastical representative arrived to investigate the claim, he found the parishioners engaging in sexual activity on the altar and burning bibles in the church.  Disgusted, he pronounced the congregation to be, not under the influence of the Holy Spirit, but under the influence of the Devil and condemned the church to closure.  Although absolute moral judgment of the congregation’s actions is subject to debate, beyond doubt, for the ecstatic devotees, things had not gone according to plan.  Somewhere along the way they ran afoul of their ultimate goal and ended up in completely unfamiliar territory.  Reflecting on these examples, perhaps the closest I can come to describing the underlying danger with this work is to point, not to the participant’s actions, but to their steadfast conviction that they were acting on behalf of a higher power. Instead, they were constructing a delusional framework to allow physical outlet for their own subconscious desires.

Of course, the cases referenced above are extreme and high-profile examples of the shadow influence of the self; most students never need fear falling so far into delusion that they would carry out heinous acts of destruction and violence.  Yet, all students wading into their innermost depths have reason to be wary and attentive. Greater and more fearsome beasts lurk in our subconscious than can be found in any zoo.  Anger we thought we let go, desires long kept under tight control, fears we’ve repressed or “talked” ourselves out of, even past life influences our conscious mind is completely unaware of,  are down there waiting to come to light.  All energetic information obtained via connection is translated by the self into usable material.  In the acts of translation and interpretation hides the risk that our own subconscious mind silently adds its own spin, or worse, masquerades as guidance from the divine.

When the Going Gets Tough

Fortunately, we are not completely lacking in tools to help navigate these risks.  The most important first step is to take them seriously.  Recognize that no matter how skeptical you may have been starting out, when you delve into inner work you are likely to experience things beyond your ken.  The most dangerous thing you can do is let your ego or rational mind tell you “I’ve got this under control” or “I can stop myself before this gets too far.”  We are at our most vulnerable when we think we are at our least.

Once you’ve acknowledged the risk and are prepared to take some life-jacket type precautions, start by recognizing what you are connecting to – and what you are not.  When you open the channel of communication; it’s not always easy to discern where input is coming from.  Most inputs are likely to be coming from your own subconscious. There is absolutely no reason to believe you are on a special mission from God to cause harm to others.  Neither God nor the Universe needs help creating harm or misery for individuals or communities if that is warranted. Carefully evaluate both the direct and ripple effects of taking action on guidance received.  Does making this move satisfy your anger, fear, or desire?   If so, this is probably not the right direction.  Reflect on the quality of your meditation at this juncture – has it been held hostage by emotion and indecision about the current test or problem?  If the latter, try to create a space in your life to meditate in a focused, grounded way.  The aim of meditation is to bring about more clarity, not less.  If you are at all emotional about something, it’s not time to take action on it.  Put the problem to the side and allow your meditation to normalize; return to structured, guided meditation if needed.

Another strategy (and it’s best to use multiple strategies) is to use the concept of ‘Data Points.’ Most of us have at least some familiarity with plotting points on a graph and drawing a connecting line.  The key is to avoid putting too much credence in any one data point or incidence of perceived guidance.  Let the data points accumulate and try to understand the larger pattern from them before letting your mind draw a particular conclusion.  Give yourself some time to mull over the signals and signs before taking any dramatic action. Remember that, with relationships, it can take only moments to destroy what took a lifetime to build.  Another helpful metaphor along these same lines is the “Tai Chi fist.”  When I first started Tai Chi, our instructor taught us to form the Tai Chi fist by imagining that we were holding a bird in our hand.  If we held the bird too loosely, it would fly away.  If we clenched our fist, we would crush it.  I often think about this metaphor when I become too attached to a particular outcome for a situation.  Although it may be impossible to completely let go of your hopes for a particular outcome, it can be helpful to remind yourself not to clench your “fist” too tightly around it.

When All Else Fails

When you find yourself really in a rut, it’s time to seek outside counsel – real outside counsel.  Avoid relying on only your tarot cards or your circle of friends for direction as these may be (unintentionally) influenced by your own hopes and desires.  I recommend seeking help from a Past Life Regressionist, a trusted Psychic (ie. as in someone you or your family can vouch for as an ethical individual), or a trusted resource outside your particular mystical tradition (if you belong to one) who understands the spiritual path.  There are mainstream psychologists out there who do past life or Jung-type work – it may be worth seeking out one of those if you feel you need help from someone with professional psychology or psychiatry training.  Outside counsel may be expensive, but it can be worth it when you need a point of view from someone who has no emotional investment in your situation.  I have sought help from Past Life Regressionists and trusted Psychics when in ruts and found their help invaluable in directing me back to my path (the very existence of this blog, in fact, is due to such counsel).  Don’t be afraid to ask specifically about your problem, even though it may be embarrassing – after all that’s why you’re there.  If they don’t have much to say about it – it could be a signal that the problem looms larger in your mind than it does on your spiritual path.

When all else fails, walk away from the path for awhile.  Immerse yourself in activities that keep you anchored in a safe and healthy reality.  Retreat to friends, family, and take a few months off.  Don’t ignore new data points – record them dispassionately in a journal, but return to your work only when you feel ready.  Avoid completely forsaking meditation at this point.  Rather, focus on short, guided meditations specifically grounding, breath, or metta-type meditations.   If you find your meditation or prayer devolving into mental anguish about the situation – stop immediately and do something else.

Actively walking the Spiritual Path is an amazing journey of transformation; a worthy and necessary cause for everyone.  It may seem like the above essay is intended to convince you that the spiritual experience is not ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ but nothing could be further from the truth.  All communication – even that with the self is real.  It will be necessary at times to deal with revelations about yourself that may be deeply disturbing; desires and secret wishes that you may want to project onto others or that you may want to believe are coming from ‘somewhere’ or ‘someone’ else.  Navigating these steps on the path is necessary for progress – but doing so “alone” can be quite a challenge. Understanding the risks, taking them seriously, and developing strategies for dealing with these types of concerns (if they arise), can ensure your journey is as smooth as possible.


[1] Krakauer, Jon Under the Banner of Heaven, Anchor c:2004 / Random House

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